This last weekend, a group of over 11,000 education reformers descended on our nation’s capitol to join together in celebration of 20th Anniversary of Teach For America, a national service corps committed to closing the educational achievement gap in American public schools.
Teach For America recruits college seniors from diverse educational backgrounds and places them in our nation’s most distressed public schools for a two-year teaching commitment. These highly motivated teachers bring energy and a resolute work ethic to the classroom and by many accounts are serving their students and their schools well. In keeping with Teach For America’s vision of growing leaders across all sectors who will continue as life-long advocates for the cause of education reform, there was an impressive cross section of practitioners in attendance.
Most of those in attendance remain directly involved in education as classroom teachers, administrators, policy wonks, or entrepreneurs. Additionally, there was an impressive showing of policy generalists, businesspersons, public officials, and celebrities. The goal of the gathering was apparent enough: celebrate TFA’s successes and continue a substantive conversation on where the movement to close our nations achievement gap goes from here.
How should Teach For America partner with faith communities?
Among the conversations taking place, one was of particular interest to people of faith. Entitled “Faith in Action: the role of faith communities in expanding educational opportunities”, this session brought together education reformers from many faiths to discuss religion’s roles in this largely secular movement. Each of the faiths represented — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism –found a similar source for what they perceived as their call to action on behalf of those on the margins of our public education system.
In general terms, each faith represented recognized a call to reach out to the oppressed and certainly there are many of those in our nation’s public schools. Each of the leaders there represented a wide spectrum of organizational purposes, developmental stages and levels of engagement. Some were very narrowly focused on developing the current parochial school infrastructure and propping those historically effective schools up to again serve urban students en masse.
Others were focused primarily on educating Americans about the history of their religious tradition. Repair the World, a Jewish service organization that addresses numerous issues of social concerns, was the largest organization represented.
The event was moderated by the Director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the White House, Joshua DuBois. DuBois was a great moderator, effectively including all parties in the conversation and doing his best to elicit descriptions of concrete actions taken by each organization to address the achievement gap. There was, however, an apparent lack of those actions on a large scale.
This is both discouraging and encouraging news. On one hand, it is unfortunate that religious organizations in general and the Christian church in particular are once again chasing culture, lagging far behind its secular non-profit counterparts in addressing issues like failing public schools. This does, however, leave a vacuum in which innovation and collaboration can take place. A new wave of faith-led reformers, driven by a call to the poor and marginalized, has plenty of room to work.
A new model going forward will need to address a few deficiencies that became apparent in this conversation. Here are a few important ideas moving forward:
1) Focus on core strengths: Volunteerism & Mentoring
Churches and other faith-based efforts will need to identify their core competency, likely their large pool of volunteer-based labor that can meet the needs of numerous students on a consistently small scale. Consistent one-on-one mentoring and regular student support for academic and emotional growth in smaller context could facilitate an experience that stands in stark contrast to many other efforts that provide cursory services to larger groups of students.
2) Hold ourselves accountable to results, not rhetoric
Faith-based organizations need to provide measurable interventions aimed at closing the achievement gap. If churches fail to address the core issue of raising student achievement, their secular counterparts will not take them seriously. This effort must entail focused academic instruction as the primary goal. Of course, this could be coupled with other efforts focused on school beautification or student social growth, but the focus needs to remain on the central issue of education.
3) Focus locally: What’s your parish?
Churches need to adopt the de facto tradition of the Catholic parochial church model that hones in on neighborhoods and builds communities in narrowly defined areas. This concept, applied to schools, would allow neighborhood churches to work together to ensure a substantive delivery of services to local schools. If and when scale happens, it should be done with a focus on multiplying the network of neighborhood churches meaningfully engaged.
The efforts of those who participated on the panel are to be applauded. To be sure, they are pioneers in many ways for their respective faiths. The issue of public education is a new context for most of them and there is much to learn from their current efforts.
Each faith, especially the Christian church, must be sure to not merely replicate the efforts of others who have gone before them. Driven by a prayerful contemplation of the severity of the need and sustained by a hope that redemption can come to these schools and their families, believers must find new ways to apply the very best of their traditions to addressing the civil rights issues of our time.
It was said at the summit no major social movement ever succeeded without investing the local church. The same will be true of the movement for education reform. God’s people must find creative and meaningful ways advocate for children and their education.